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Prevent School Violence

Must-Know School Violence Prevention Information

"They're like little match sticks waiting to be lit"

A judge in Springfield, Oregon, site of a school shooting, May, 1998

This article on how to prevent school violence is intended for youth professionals. It explains how to tell which youth may pose the highest risk for potential serious harm, and what you must do now to understand and work with them.

To best ensure your safety, and the safety of your other students, and to successfully teach and counsel all youngsters in our violent times, this article will help you begin to upgrade your skills to become more effective with all your "little match sticks waiting to be lit."

Article by Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. Contact us for permission to reprint this article. Copyright 1998 Youth Change Workshops.

Youth Change is based in Woodburn, Oregon, about 90 miles from a place you had never heard of until May, 1998. So, when we heard on the radio one morning last May, that there had been a shooting in Springfield, Oregon, it was more than just another school shooting. It was something quite personal. The extreme violence had happened in our own backyard. What could never happen here, had happened here.

We offer this informational article on extreme violence, excerpted from our workshop, in the hope that it may help ensure that what happened here, will never happen where you are.



speaker Ruth Herman WellsSpot and Stop Extreme Violence

What Every Youth Worker Must Know
to Understand and Prevent Extreme Juvenile Violence

Adapted from an earlier article  by Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. published under a slightly different title in "The Child Welfare Report" Fall, 1998



"They're like little match sticks
waiting to be lit"



There is no guaranteed way to prevent extreme violence. But many teachers and counselors may find it useful to at least understand which students may potentially offer the greatest threat.

This information is not intended to alarm you, but to best equip you to organize and understand the children who have the potential for the most extreme danger. This information is no substitute for our workshop or other mental health-based training. It is a brief thumbnail guideline so you can conceptualize who could pose danger, and why, plus, what you can do about it.

Teach Them Expected Behaviors

First, all children must be taught peaceful behavior. Years ago, kids arrived at their school or agency, prepared by their family to act peacefully. Now, the opposite is true. Kids arrive prepared to be aggressive, often unsure how to be peaceful because at home, on TV, in the movies, in the neighborhood, and on the computer, people act violently, rudely and aggressively. For some kids, that is all they know.

Although it should not have to be your job to train kids to be peaceful, if you don't do it, and the family doesn't do it, who will? The corrections system. But that is a reactive, not pro-active response that doesn't help ensure safety, so start by teaching kids to do what they are expected to do.

The Kids at Highest Risk of Extreme Violence

Remember, this information is offered you so you can make sense out of the kids around you. We are condensing a lot of complicated mental health information, so please be sure to read more in this area, and not assume that this quick guide provides you all the answers you need. When in doubt, always consult a mental health professional. If you are not a mental health professional, reading this guide does not sufficiently prepare you to diagnose kids, yet the information below refers to several mental health diagnostic categories. Remember, these categories are offered here only as guidelines, not so you can attempt to definitely diagnose children.

1. Conduct Disorders

The child who may potentially pose the greatest threat of extreme violence is called a conduct disorder. To understand this child, visualize the fictional character, J.R. from the TV show "Dallas" because the hallmark of having a conduct disorder (C.D.), is having no heart, no conscience, no remorse.

Only a mental health professional can diagnose a conduct disorder for sure, but being aware that you probably have at least one conduct disordered child in your class or group, is important to ensuring your safety, along with the safety of your kids, because you work with students with conduct disorders completely differently than other kids.

Since the child with C.D. has no relationship capacity, you should not use relationship-based approaches with a diagnosed conduct disorder. In general, conventional approaches fail with students who have conduct disorders. That last sentence is very, very important to think about because it says that ordinary interventions normally fail with this particular child. Think about the implications for your office or classroom.

It would be insensitive to call a conduct disorder, a "baby sociopath," but that is close to what the term means. It means that the child acts in ways that appear to be seriously anti-social, and the concern is that the child may grow up to be a sociopathic type of person.

Since this child cares only about himself (they are predominately male), there are little brakes on this child from serious or extreme violence. Not every conduct disordered child will engage in horrific behavior. Some C.D.'s are more like Eddie Haskell from "Leave it to Beaver," and are just the neighborhood bully. Others may shoplift, join a gang, or engage in hurtful manipulation.

There is a range of misbehavior C.D.'s may get involved with, ranging from lying to setting fires or being a sexual predator. At the most serious end of the spectrum, lies the possibility of extreme violence, such as the school shooting in Oregon.

In our workshop, we spend at least a couple hours helping you understand how to work with conduct disorders. While C.D.s are only 11-14% of the population, having just one of them in your class or group can be tough.

If you work in a specialized setting, like special ed, a group home, or at-risk program, you likely have a concentration of these kids. You can come to one of our classes, or get books that help teach you how to work with this most hard-to-manage kid.

The main point we give in our classes is that these children operate on a cost-benefit system, and that to control your C.D. kids, you must keep the costs high, and benefits low. These children also especially need to pro-actively learn how to manage their fists, mouth, and actions.

Your goal is to teach them that when they hurt others, it often hurts them too. All interventions must be in the context of "I-Me," because that is all this kid is capable of caring about.

Have you noticed how the information in this article is much more complex than the quick sound bites you get from the media when they describe school shooters? The reality of youngsters who may become involved in extreme violence can not be captured in a brief sound bite. Also, be sure to notice how this critical, potentially life-saving information was not included in your college training.

Here are the second and third youngsters at highest risk of becoming involved in extreme violence.

 2. Thought Disorders

The risk posed by thought disordered children is possibly far less than that of the conduct disordered youth. Although #2 on this list, it is a rather distant second choice, not an immediate one. Part of the explanation is that there are probably a lot more conduct disordered kids than thought disordered ones.

The other reason that explains the somewhat distant #2 status is that the thought disordered child may be well-intentioned, kind, and loving at times. The child with conduct disorder really never is able to care about anyone else. Another reason to explain the distant #2 status is that often the thought disordered child will act in rather than act out. They often will pose a harm to self rather than others.

Unless you work in a treatment setting, just a very small fraction of the children you work with, may have what mental health professionals call thought disorder. In treatment settings, such as day treatment programs, state hospitals, residential treatment programs, and other such environments, there will be greater numbers of these children because they are part of the target population you serve.

While the thinking of the student with conduct disorder is clear and lucid, that assumption is not always true for the thought disordered child. The child who has been diagnosed with this type of thought problem by a mental health worker, has very serious problems with their thinking.

The child may hear voices or see visions that no one else can, for example. The child may believe they are being governed by demons or devils. Non-mental health professionals might view the child as crazy or insane, and that is sadly, fairly accurate although obviously not very politically correct in phrasing.

Mental health professionals might choose far different adjectives but essentially they too are saying that the child is not always in touch with reality. If, as an adult, a thought-disordered person commits a serious crime, they could be judged not guilty by reason of insanity. The thinking problem that this child has, is just that enormously powerful, serious and potentially dangerous.

The thrust of working with a diagnosed thought disorder is often on proper medication, although things like skill building and structure are also very important. Trusting relationships can be a helping factor to reign in or influence the child.

Perhaps the single most important concern will be that the child takes any prescribed medication regularly and properly, because when properly medicated, this child may function almost normally in many ways. When not correctly medicated, this child is at the mercy of any demons, visions, voices or upsetting thoughts that pop into their head.

To best visualize this disorder, watch the movie "A Beautiful Mind". It gives a glimpse of what the disorder feels like. Only the correct medicine taken correctly can help the symptoms to eventually abate. The medicine helps the child's brain to work closer to the way it should be working. As many thought-disordered children don't recognize the need for medication, helping a child become convinced that the medication is essential to living, must be a top priority.

3. Severe Agitated Depression

The occurrence of extreme violence by severely depressed, agitated children probably also probably lags behind the risk posed by children with conduct disorders.

This term refers to a child who has experienced extremely severe problems with depression, and at least some of the time, also struggles mightily with agitation. Many kids, especially teens, struggle with depression, but this group endures some of the most prolonged, profound, deep depression; this should not be confused with typical adolescent ups and downs.

When the severely depressed and agitated child also abuses substances, the problem can be magnified greatly depending on the interplay of the substance and the existing emotional concerns.

Crisis, sudden changes and the usual adolescent successes and failures can quickly de-stabilize this child who is already seriously struggling; these events can have the effect of the straw that broke the camel's back.

Any emotion that a child has trouble managing, may get acted out or acted in. Depression is generally acted in: the child withdraws, reduces their activities, may eat less, etc. But, depression can also be acted out.

Feeling cornered, unable to endure any more pain, some children will act out, sometimes lashing out in very severe ways. All things in nature strive to come to a conclusion. Storms eventually dissipate, the rain ultimately gives way to sun, and even the snow will eventually end. Humans, as part of nature, also tend to move towards resolution. For some children, extreme violence can be the flash point that offers that resolution.

When there appears to be no hope, perhaps the child believes that there is nothing left to lose. Depression can be tough on adults, but couple the depression with a child's lack of time concept, lack of perspective, their impulsiveness, immaturity and resistance to understanding the link of actions to final outcomes, extreme violence can be grabbed as perhaps a solution.

If this vulnerable child becomes linked to a student with conduct disorder, you can see how under certain circumstances, that could become a deadly combination as the depressed, agitated child may join in the acting-out.

To help this child, alleviating some of the torment will be critical. Building a trusting relationship with the youth would probably help, but isn't essential, and is often difficult to accomplish anyway. More essential, is to help the child find ways to exist that they can control and are also socially acceptable.

Tired of feeling helpless and powerfulness in every regard, this kid can become a volcano that could one day blow. Help to manage anger in socially acceptable ways, tempering the depression, and alleviating some of the agitation can keep this child from remaining at the level of extreme discomfort they currently experience.

This child can remain a pressure cooker capable of hurting self and/or others in an explosion, or the child can be aided to gradually reduce the agitation and pressure they are experiencing. If this child receives useful aid to vent the agitation and give some light to the depression, any risk of extreme violence can be significantly impacted.

A site that is carefully attuned to detecting troubled children, and well-prepared to effectively assist them will not as likely face harm from such a child. Although this is the child who may originate from a troubled home, or have lived or live with victimization, this may be the most hopeful and more readily impacted of the three types of children discussed here.

Medication can aid this child, but the depression and/or agitation can re-new, sometimes with a vengeful vigor when the medicine is discontinued, which is often inevitable. Medication alone is seldom the best course of action, and should always be combined with other interventions such as anger management, depression management, coping skills training, and leisure time management training. Medication also poses the hazard of increasing the potential risk for self-harm.

Appraising the Risk

Now you can look at your class or group and not just wonder where the potential, serious danger would come from. Now that you have more refined guesses about which youth potentially pose potential danger, here is a way to better rank that risk in your mind.

As the judge in Springfield said after the shootings, so many kids are "little match sticks waiting to be lit." To adapt that image a bit, here is how you can apply that thinking to the three at-risk groups listed here.

You can imagine that the conduct disorder is already lit; a flame is burning. Whether that flame becomes smaller, flares larger, or creates an inferno, is anyone's guess, but the flame is burning always, the potential for disaster is always there. What happens to that flame, whether it is static, or grows smaller or larger, or someday rages, will vary from conduct disorder to conduct disorder, but sadly, the flame will never extinguish.

The thought-disordered child may be like a pilot light, a tiny flame that is always lit, but is fairly unlikely to inexplicably get massively bigger or out of control. Properly shepherded and assisted, this light may stay forever just a benign flicker.

Managed improperly or inadequately, however, this flame can get bigger, even flare out of control. The extremely agitated depressed child may be the unlit match stick that the judge visualized. Outside factors will likely come into play to incite any flare-up. Outside forces could include peer pressure, crises, substance abuse, family woes, or just mounting problems that fuel the agitation and create a profound, all-encompassing sense of desperation that leads the child to "spontaneously" combust.

Like the thought-disordered child, the severely agitated depressed youth can often be so readily aided if the community can identify them, then consistently care and effectively intervene.

In Summary

If you work with kids, but you are not a mental health professional, maybe it's time to at least learn some of the basics about children's mental health. And, no matter what your role with children, please consider it your obligation to train your kids to be peaceful.

That may be the most important contribution you could make in a world that so thoroughly ensures that every child knows so much about extreme violence, and so little about anything peaceful.

Regardless of your role, your training from college may have little to do with contemporary youth. Get trained to work with that contemporary youngstre who may still be able to reach the high expectations for conduct that you hold for them, but may need a lot more specific training from you to ever get there.

Extreme violence, said Oregon's governor, after the shootings in Springfield, is not a school problem, but a societal problem. As long as children are raised amid the extreme violence of TV, computer games, movies, neighborhoods, and school yards, and never systematically taught anything else, this societal problem will sadly also remain a school problem.


in person online teacher conferencesFor more than the introductory information on violent youth and conduct disorders contained in this article, consider ordering or downloading our All the Best Answers for the Worst Kid Problems: Anti-Social Youth and Conduct Disorders. We also offer several online courses on students with conduct disorder and preventing school violence. Our Breakthrough Strategies to Teach and Counsel Troubled Youth course is offered both live and online.


 violent student